Congratulations to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for pulling defeat from the jaws of victory! On Thursday, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reached an agreement on filibuster reform: There won’t be much.
The two reached an agreement that will make some incremental improvements to Senate rules that will help legislation reach the floor. Much to the dismay of reformers calling for an end to the Republican tactic of abusing filibusters, the new rules ultimately still leave the upper chamber vulnerable to minority rule and gridlock.
We already knew that any hope for bringing back the talking filibuster (the old school Mr. Smith Goes to Washington version) was a non-starter in the negotiations. Still, reformers had been optimistic that the deal would lead to a similarly important reform that would require the minority to obtain 41 votes to begin a filibuster rather than require the majority to obtain 60 votes to end one. By flipping the filibuster requirement on its head, it would have allowed for debate but still provided the minority with the ability to be heard on issues they were the most adamant about.
Reid had publicly stated that he would push for that reform using the “nuclear option” should he be unable to reach an agreement with McConnell. It’s becoming very clear that he never wanted to implement that rule change himself. He’s not alone. There are many older Democrats who are reluctant to make any change to the filibuster, unable to accept that the obstructionist Republican Party they’re dealing with today is not the Republican Party of the past that was actually interested in making government work.
Based on the results of the negotiations, it’s more realistic to believe that Reid had used the progressive reform package authors Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) authored as leverage to threaten McConnell into agreeing to smaller changes. Of course, Reid still gave some major concessions to Republicans reminding Democrats across the nation that defeating Sharron Angle in 2010 may have been a Pyrrhic victory.
Here are the highlights from the two separate resolutions with new rules:
- Creates a new pathway to end a filibuster if the Minority Leader and seven members of the minority party consent.
- Reduces delays on cloture votes and prevents filibusters on motions to proceed (a debate about whether to have debate) on some appointments. Circuit Judge, Supreme Court, and Cabinet Official appointments will retain the 30 hour delay on motions to proceed. Sub-cabinet appointments will be reduced to eight hours. All other appointments will have a two hour delay. This entire change will sunset in 2014.
- The minority party will be able to offer two amendments to each bill. This change will sunset in 2014.
- The majority may more easily create a conference committee, but minority may still filibuster the motion once.
There are also a few non-binding “gentleman’s agreements” (read: empty promises) including one stating that a senator would declare his or her intent to filibuster on the floor rather than placing an anonymous hold. The gentleman’s agreement made in 2010 didn’t last long, and there’s no reason to think this one will either. In 2014, you can expect anonymous holds will still be the norm.
Together, this package puts a notable dent on the Republicans’ delaying tactics, but it doesn’t address their abuse of the filibuster. Instead of Republicans delaying progress in the procedural stage, they’ll just delay progress on the floor.
Some of these reforms are also essentially meaningless in application. The alternate route to ending a filibuster, for instance, still requires the Democratic majority to get McConnell to sign off along with seven Republicans. But Democrats have 55 votes. So on the most contentious pieces of legislation that break down party lines, Democrats can break a filibuster by getting 60 votes … or 63. It would make at least some sense if the rules were permanent and given consideration to future majority-minority balances, but they sunset in 2014.
Overall, the agreement is probably a baby step in the right direction on an opportunity for Reid to make bold new reforms. Somewhere between his outrage over filibuster abuse in 2010 and his outrage over filibuster abuse in 2012, Reid decided that accomplishing nothing was a good thing.